— Memorial Day and the unofficial start of summer has passed, leading the way into what forecasters are projecting as an exceptionally dangerous fire season. As in the past, Oregon-based Columbia Helicopters is prepared to assist with fighting fires across the western United States.
Columbia owns and operates the largest, privately-held fleet of heavy-lift helicopters in the world, which are ideally suited to aerial assault on wild fires. The company operates the Columbia Model 234 Chinook, the Boeing CH-47D Chinook, and the Columbia Vertol 107-II.
“Fire season has officially begun, but it’s been mild up to this point,” said Keith Saylor, director of commercial operations for Columbia Helicopters. “However, all indications suggest above normal fire activity as we approach the heaviest part of the season.”
“Our aircraft and crews are getting ready to respond as soon as they are needed,” said Jim Rankin, company president. “The aircraft have undergone routine winter maintenance, and the crews have completed the necessary annual training.”
“We will have four aircraft that are on Exclusive Use (EU) contracts with the U.S. Forest Service this summer,” added Rankin. “We also have several other helicopters that we will make available under Call When Needed (CWN) contracts with the Forest Service and other fire agencies.”
One of Columbia’s Chinooks has already begun its EU assignment, reporting to LaGrande, Oregon on May 1st. The aircraft remains in northeastern Oregon, on standby until the Forest Service needs it on a fire elsewhere. The other three EU aircraft will deploy in the coming weeks to John Day, Oregon; Pollock Pines, California; and Missoula, Montana.
Columbia’s aircraft fight fire using SEI Torrentula Bambi Buckets equipped with the Powerfill System. Carried roughly 200-feet below the helicopters, the pilots are able to fill these buckets from limited-access water sources, such as tree-lined streams or ponds, and then deploy the water in variety of drop patterns. The company’s two models of Chinook helicopters will carry buckets designed to carry almost 2,600 gallons of water or retardant, while the Vertol 10-II will carry a 1,100-gallon bucket. Each bucket is equipped with four high-volume pumps that allow extra versatility.
“Our pilots can fill these buckets in under two minutes from water sources as shallow as 18-inches,” said Steve Bandy, senior vice president of operations. “Combined with the long lines, we can access water sources not available to tanked helicopters. In the past we’ve been able to use water sources significantly closer to fires, allowing us to deploy massive amounts of water in support of the ground crews.”
Working in communication with an air coordinator and ground crews, Columbia’s pilots are able to deliver water or retardant with pinpoint accuracy. The pilots can drop an entire bucket in one massive spot drop, or split the load into a series of smaller drops, depending on the need. They can also open the bucket while in forward flight, creating a substantial fire line.
Columbia’s aircraft deploy to fires with an adept crew of pilots, mechanics and support personnel, as well as a convoy of support vehicles including fuel trucks, support vehicles and trailers containing spare parts, maintenance manuals, generators, compressors and lighting. Each crew typically includes three to four pilots and four to eight mechanics. The company conducts routine maintenance on the helicopters at night, after the flight day has completed.
Related: Fire Fighting News